Not-so-secret society

"The Lost Symbol" aside, Freemasons are really just regular guys trying to do the right thing. The drama is in the decor.

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The Freemasons of Lodge 19 meet regularly in an old mansion, in a room filled with pomp and circumstance worthy of Harry Potter's Hogwarts: pillars topped by terrestrial and celestial spheres, throne-like chairs, a checkerboard floor pattern, and ominous-looking symbols -- pyramids, all-seeing eyes, a square and compass surrounding a letter "G."

Just who are these mysterious men who call each other "brethren," and what kind of skullduggery are they up to? Could this brotherhood be as full of deception and mayhem as the action involving Freemasonry in Dan Brown's latest novel, "The Lost Symbol"?

No such luck. After a recent Lodge 19 evening session, a huge wooden door creaked open to reveal ... a bunch of normal-looking guys standing around talking. Their conversations ranged from golf, boating, the $25,000 they recently raised to build a new playground, and the dinner of braised beef tips, egg noodles and blueberry cobbler they were about to enjoy.

The group included a radio programmer, a real estate agent, a lawyer, a doctor and a salesman. The mood was convivial, amicable, fraternal. One possible contributor to that feeling: "No talk of politics or religion allowed," said Nick Leavy, acting senior warden.

Brown, whose sequel to "The Da Vinci Code" sold more than 2 million copies in its first week, has once again stirred up interest in the Freemasons. This time around, hero professor Robert Langdon must hunt down a hidden pyramid in Masonic-symbol-rich Washington, D.C., and the villain is a Freemason who also happens to be a freak hellbent on becoming God.

The Masons, a centuries-old fraternity with worldwide reach, have sparked rumors of occult worship and undue government influence for ages, partly because of the shroud of secrecy required of members. They date to the unions of stoneworkers and architects who built King Solomon's temple, who by living and working together developed an unbreakable loyalty and a common code of conduct.

Not much secrecy left

To become a Mason, you must petition a lodge, whose members will do a background check (no felons allowed). Once initiated into the "first degree," members can work toward greater degrees -- 33 is the highest and a great, rare honor -- through study, good works and reputation, a sort of exalted version of Boy Scout badges for men.

Although the brotherhood, loyalty and commitment to being and doing good remains, there's not much secrecy left, said Tom McCarthy, a district judge who is grand master of Minnesota's 160 Masonic lodges. Because some bad apples blabbed, "it now only takes about 20 minutes online to find the secret handshake, password and sign," he said.

Freemasons, long thought of by outsiders as retirees in quaint little hats who like to mix mysticism with morality, have begun to attract younger members in recent years, a trend that began well before buzz about "The Lost Symbol" sequel did. Lodge 19, which was founded in the mid-19th century just before Minnesota became a state, has about 300 members. Since relocating two years ago to the Harrington Mansion on Park Avenue near downtown Minneapolis and beefing up its website, the lodge has picked up nearly 20 new men.

As of last December, there were almost 15,800 lodge members in Minnesota. While new members have been signing up at the rate of a few to several hundred a year, that doesn't mean total membership is growing apace. Doug Campbell, grand secretary for Minnesota's Grand Lodge in Bloomington, said the average age for a Mason is in the mid-60s, with members in their 80s and even 90s skewing that figure upward. Collectively, more members die every year than are signed up.

"Very few states have had increases since the high point of the early 1960s, and Minnesota mirrors that national pattern," Campbell said. "We've been adding 300 or more a year but losing 2,000 because of the [passing of the] World War II generation."

But Campbell is confident that the Masons are not "on a downward slide to oblivion. Members in their 40s, 30s and occasionally 20s are replacing the ones we lose."

Inner alchemy

Traditional trappings and gem-studded symbol rings are still popular at Lodge 19, but they're being joined by modern adaptations like Masonic-symbol tattoos and golf shirts.

Reed Endersbe, 38, has been a Mason for 15 years.

"I had a family connection and was always intrigued by all the history behind it," said Endersbe, who grew up in Grand Forks, N.D., and now works in programming at KQRS radio. "The mystery was part of the appeal at first, but also wanting to be part of something bigger than yourself."

When the lodge members speak of the architectural symbols around them as "reinforcing inner alchemy" and gesture at the ornately outfitted meeting quarters they spent $35,000 to upgrade, it's clear that a penchant for filigree and ritual -- largely absent in other areas of modern life --is part of the appeal, as well.

In addition to a whole lot more folderol, Freemasons differ from organizations like the Jaycees, Elks, Kiwanis and Rotary through their "intense brotherhood," grand master McCarthy said. "We do community service, as well, but we have a specific goal to improve the moral self, to take good men and make them better."

That's "moral" in the broadest sense, he said -- "just and upright."

McCarthy, who travels the state and attends several award dinners a month at various lodges, said he's noticed an increase in new-membership petitions.

"No more than 10 people are to be admitted into a degree at one time, but I just got a request from a lodge in Rochester for dispensation to admit 16 next month," he said. "One of the really nice things is we bring generations together. You can have a 30-year-old and an 80-year-old grandpa in the same lodge. The common experience of going through the ritual is very bonding."

That common experience does not extend across gender boundaries, however. Never has, and probably never will. Auxiliary groups exist for Masons' wives and other interested women, but they are separate entities not privy to meetings and degree work. To make the guys-only membership policy seem less antiquated, Lodge 19 plans monthly couples or family outings.

Rep vs. reality

As American culture became more racially integrated, so did the Masons. Prince Hall in Minneapolis is part of a network of primarily black lodges dating to the Revolutionary War. Minnesota deputy grand master John Cook, who will begin his term as grand master next March, is an African-American.

As for religion, most new members choose to swear on the Bible upon getting their first degree, but the Qur'an or the Torah are just as acceptable. You just can't be an atheist. To be a Freemason, you must believe in a supreme being, but just who that should be is up to you (except demons). "We're encouraged to practice our beliefs without proselytizing," Endersbe said.

If you Google "masonic symbols," the first sites to pop up are likely to be rants tying Masons to everything from occult involvement to world-domination schemes. Sorry, conspiracy theorists. Freemasons don't plot to overthrow the world or worship Satan. They do build playgrounds and fund scholarships.

McCarthy finds the persistent accusations of devil dabbling -- and worse -- unfortunate, but not much more than a nuisance. "What other secret organization puts signs on their buildings and has listings in the Yellow Pages?" he said.

The men of Lodge 19 also seemed circumspect about the rumors still rampant on the Internet.

"If we spent any effort trying to dispel them, that's all we'd do all day long," Endersbe said. "You can find the majority of what goes on in our degree works and meetings online, but it's one thing to read about it and quite another to experience it."

And there it is -- the whiff of mystery, beckoning more men to the inner sanctum.

Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046

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